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How Testing and School Choice are Undermining Education

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San Francisco, where I live, has a rich array of public school choices – more than 100 different schools or programs that can satisfy almost any need. 

Late last year, my wife Aileen and I joined with thousands of parents to select from those options, and submitted a set of 32 priority choices for our twin five-year-olds. We just received our letter from the district, revealing the result.

San Francisco has a system of school choice, and I think I am grateful for it. But it does have its limitations. In this system, the schools choose the parents, not the other way around. When one of the top-performing or most popular schools fills up, parents are shifted to their second, third, or twentieth choice, to make sure all the schools are, ultimately, full.

Since selecting our 32 priorities was almost a full-time job last January for Aileen, I suspect that the system is fairly good at serving the needs of relatively affluent San Franciscans who can squeeze out the time for research and networking. Aileen visited 16 schools, prepared a spreadsheet comparing them, and held coffee gatherings with other mothers, and a couple of fathers, to compare notes, and to share strategies about how to game the system to their advantage. 

The system might also work for single-parent families “lucky” enough to live in demographically poorer areas with low average school performance. That is, if they know which schools are best, and happen to have the capacity to drive their kids twice a day across town to reach them, or navigate the application process for possible bus service. Judging by the demographics of those top schools, it seems to me few single moms or dads have the extra time to do that. We thought about whether we should move to a low-performing area, so we could snag a spot in a highly-rated school somewhere else.  One family in our coffee clutch group did, and I admire their determination to make the system work, at least for them.

But it all seemed engineered by a politically-eclectic mix of progressive and establishment interest groups, who were doing the best they could to provide school choice, without really challenging the status quo interests that define our educational system. 

So, in the midst of it all, I was excited to read former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch’s recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, New York, NY, 2010). Here was a former education champion from the George W. Bush administration, once a strong proponent of testing and school choice, who has reversed her position.

I have long been a casual supporter of school choice, but have never deeply studied the data on the performance of its two most popular forms: vouchers and charters. Vouchers empower parents to send their children (and the tax dollars that pay for their education) to any school that will accept them, public or private. Charters allow a similar choice, but only among public schools meeting basic state standards. 

But to many, “school choice” is a religion, and in political circles especially, we are expected to either embrace the religion wholly, or reject it entirely. 

I am somewhere in between. My intuition and experience tell me that choice is generally good, in all areas of life – difficult and challenging, especially in the short-term, but essential for innovation and improvement. Ravitch sounded like she would challenge my assumptions, and at least refine, if not overturn, my intuitive beliefs about choice in public education. She billed herself as someone who, like me, thought choice was a good idea, but was willing to let the evidence change her position.

That’s not what I found in the book, however. The best part of this book is Ravitch’s convincing case that curriculum is more important than choice or testing, as a driver of quality education.  That makes clear sense to me.  School choice should not be about letting parents and kids decide what to do every school day – it is about choosing between schools that teach curricula.  Clearly, a focus on effective curricula is fundamental. 

Ravitch also convinces me that today’s system of testing school performance undermines the imperative of a quality curriculum. Originally intended to measure performance across an array of subjects, the tests instead focus overwhelmingly on easy-to-measure and politically-neutral measures of literacy and math proficiency. Right-wing and left-wing ideologues can condemn any measure of performance in history, literature, art, or science – but even they can’t find anything Biblically or politically incorrect about strings of letters and numbers.

The problem here is obvious:  schools have an incentive to game the tests, sacrificing a comprehensive curriculum so that they can drill their students to score well on reading and arithmetic. That doesn’t necessarily mean testing is bad, but when the tests are only on these two politically vanilla skills, they say little about overall quality of learning.

So far, so good. But Ravitch fails in her other objective: to build a case against school choice. She fails for several reasons.

First, her premise is not credible. She claims to have made a fundamental shift in her position – to have moved from a dedicated proponent of testing and choice, to a reluctant critic whose idealism was finally undermined by her hesitant acceptance of contrary evidence.

That just doesn’t add up. By her own account, Ravitch was highly skeptical of both testing and choice before her Bush appointment. She was a Democrat appointed to a Republican administration who got “caught up” in the Bush team’s enthusiasm about these ideas, and publicly advocated them in speeches and writings. But then, after her short tenure was up, she reverted to her prior politics and position.

The attempt to lead the reader into thinking she actually changed her mind in some fundamental way undermines the credibility of the rest of her book. I’m sure it helps it sell better – I wouldn’t have read it, if accurately described. I’m sure it also plays well to true-believer critics of testing and choice, who think others will believe Ravitch.  But the device made me distrust her. It sounds dishonest.

Second, she criticizes school choice because it has failed to live up to the idealistic expectations of its true-believer advocates. 

That’s not the right metric. True-believers in any ideal tend to exaggerate the failures of the status quo, as well as the benefits of their panacea. Extremists on the left see injustice in the economy, and want to sweep away capitalism and everything associated with it. Extremists on the right see traditional marriage changing, and want to forcefully “return” us to a mythical 1950s model.  School choice advocates believe it a panacea; critics condemn it as the final bullet that destroys public education and delivers the system to capitalists who care only about money. 

I like to hear the assertions of extreme thinkers, and I benefit from their crystal-clear ideologies, but I don’t hold them to their predictions. The real world is more complex than the mental one they spend their time inhabiting.

I like innovation, and I am a recidivist social entrepreneur. But I try to be realistic about the systemic effects of choice and innovation.  This suggests to me a different set of criteria for judging the success or failure of school choice.

First, I would expect the advocates of the status quo to sound the alarms, certain that choice will completely undermine, damage, and ultimately destroy their institution, no matter what it is. That’s because they lie at the opposite extreme as the true believers in change – they fear it. In some ways, they may distrust their institution as much as its worst critics – they know its flaws, and seem convinced that others will abandon it once they have the chance.

But that’s not what usually happens. My second expectation is that choice will drive much less change much more slowly than either extreme expects. Most people fear change, often for sound reasons. They err toward stasis. Unless public schools are absolutely horrid, I would expect only two or three percent of parents to take a chance on a brand new, risky alternative.

Ravitch confirms my suspicions. Most of the time, well under five percent of parents take advantage of charter or voucher alternatives. The vast majority stick with their neighborhood public schools.  This is a good thing – it is dangerous to suddenly “fix” everything, when everything isn’t broken. It should calm the fears of public school advocates – some falsely fear that charters will quickly devastate traditional public schools, as parents abandon them in droves. Fortunately, traditional schools are not that bad.  Even in poor neighborhoods, most are run by smart principals and dedicated teachers doinga pretty good job, often a very good job.

Third, I would expect new charter schools to underperform equivalent student populations in public schools, for at least two or three years, maybe longer. Most innovations fail, or at least don’t make much difference. The benefits of choice are longer-term, and extend beyond the point of origin. Bad ideas don’t last forever, if choice exists. Good ideas are extended and emulated. School choice provides a variety of experiments from which all schools – traditional and new – can select. 

In reality, Ravitch reports, charter schools and voucher schools generally match or beat the average performance of public schools.  Critics point to studies that say they are no better.  Advocates point to those that say they are significantly better. Most of the research yields complex findings.  That is to be expected, unless the public schools are so bad that any random innovation is likely to be better than the status quo.

Fourth, for the reasons above, I expect it would be a mistake to charter an alternative school for just three years. That’s unreasonably urgent. In any new job, it takes me two years just to gain basic competence.  Starting a new school is many times more complex.  Some will find their way in two to three years.  Some will experiment for two to three more, after initially stumbling. That’s what innovation is like. I would expect five or even ten years could be required for an innovative school to experiment, develop a set of promising ideas, and hone them until they truly outperform the prior system.  Indeed, Ravitch reports, that seems to be the case. 

Fifth, I would never expect “alternative” schools to consistently outperform “standard” ones. That’s because successful innovations are viral – good ideas can be adopted, not just by the innovator, but also by the dominant players.  In business, the truly innovative companies often go out of business, even after popularizing a great new idea. I don’t have a Diet Right Cola, Bell Labs cell phone, or Xerox Windows display here on my desk. Dominant companies “borrowed” those ideas and sent the innovators toward bankruptcy. The old-guard always copies the innovators, then muscles them out of the way. Alternative schools will always struggle, but that does not mean they are failing. It is hard to go up against any status quo.  Innovators and their followers are bold, brave, optimistic, and often wrong, but we all benefit from their unrealistic expectations, and their determination to turn their ideal into reality.

Sixth, I would expect some charter and voucher schools to be excellent performers, and some to be terrible, especially in their first years. This turns out to be true, says Ravitch.  She quotes the observations of a charter school advocate, Chester E. Finn, Jr., who points this out:

“Some of the best schools I’ve ever been in are charter schools, some of which are blowing the lid off test scores in such vexed communities as Boston, New York, and Chicago.  And some of the worst – and flakiest – schools I’ve been in are charter schools. Yet people are choosing them.”  (p. 139)

That is the nature of innovation – a lot of ideas just don’t work out. That is not fair for the students who suffer because of a choice made by their parents.  My junior high school experience was horrific, and the rest of my public education was mostly so-so, until I attended a public university, which was extraordinary. Students will overcome short-term adversity, maybe even excel because of it, as long as the system as a whole is self-correcting.

But be careful of the critique of “flaky” schools made by those opposed to choice. To the dominant forces of any institution, everything novel is considered flaky, until they decide to co-opt it.   Retail giants used to think organic foods were a crackpot idea. Dominant beverage brands resisted diet drinks and natural juices – now they own them.  The education establishment and the teachers unions will fight choice for awhile, but eventually they will benefit from it, if they are smart.

Here is one problem with charter schools that I didn’t anticipate, but it makes sense now that Ravitch has explained it: charters, she says, have undermined Catholic schools, by providing a cheaper alternative to public schools. This is in stark contrast to vouchers, the other approach to choice, which enable parents to shift their education dollars to religious schools, if they desire.

But here, it seems to me that the sensible remedy is not to prevent choice; it is to consider whether choice should be expanded to include religious schools. If charters give parents the same advantages as religious schools, but at a lower out-of-pocket cost, maybe it’s not a bad thing that they gain while religious schools become fewer.  But if religious schools perform better than both traditional and charter schools in teaching minorities, as Ravitch contends, then the better option may be vouchers.

Just mentioning that in writing sends an electric shock of panic through establishment education circles.  If I had any real influence in education policy, I would have just undermined my career for years, by voicing the possibility that choice could, maybe, extend to religious schools. I would be an enemy to anyone reacting impulsively, tribally, righteously, and who would rather fight than think.  Am I some kind of religious nut? An anti-union extremist who wants schools controlled by corporations? 

I do; however, acknowledge the opposite point of view. Ravitch has several legitimate criticisms of school choice advocates. First, their anti-public school rhetoric is often overblown.  “They often sound as though they want public schools to fail,” she says. Some probably do. In their less noble moments, activists often secretly hope some of their worst fears will be realized, to validate their concerns. How many religious, environmental, or anti-government extremists secretly hope for their brand of Armageddon to begin, to prove their warnings correct?

Ravitch also makes the case that public schools should not be run as if they are businesses. I can’t argue with that  Corporate executives, who dominate the school choice advocacy community, often idealize their own institutional models. They make over-the-top claims about public school failures, and equally outrageous predictions of how choice will turn things around. 

That problem can be even worse with private foundations, as Ravitch contends. Foundations are populated by skilled professionals often in charge of much more money than anyone has a right to administer.  Their instincts are no better than those of other professionals. The problem is, because they hold the purse strings, potential grantees seldom truly challenge their whims. Instead, they curry their favor and carry forward their assumptions, into programs that anticipate overwhelming transformations, which they almost invariably fail to achieve. Then, to cover themselves, they often revert to “case studies” and “stories” that illustrate the few instances in which their untested and undeveloped ideas, unleashed on the world, actually generated real benefits for someone. 

But Ravitch’s cartoonish description of everything “business”-oriented is thin and off-putting.  Just because business is a poor model for education does not mean principles like accountability and choice are bad for education.  Many corporate executives would prefer their companies be unaccountable monopolies with no competitors – in fact, many hire lobbyists to help nudge this objective into being. Many in the education establishment would like a monopoly too.  It’s so efficient, after all. But parents, students, and communities suffer when they lack choice, either among businesses or among schools. 

Most irritating to me, Ravitch suggests entrepreneurs simply want to “do (their) own thing” at public expense, to hoard for themselves “the vast riches of the education industry.” Granted, I see many entrepreneurs who behave like this, but mostly in movies.  In the real world, most entrepreneurs are flesh-and-blood people who are motivated by ideas about how to do things better.  Their energy is something to be harnessed, not belittled.

And she says the big three foundations backing school choice – Gates, Broad, and Walton – are no more than a “billionaire boys club” that gets remarkably “gentle treatment” by the press.  Let’s set aside the politically correct slight aimed at (white) men, against whom bigotry is still socially-sanctioned on the left.  In reality, most foundations on both the left and right tend to get gentle treatment by the news media, which mistakes their good intentions for good results.

What Ravitch really fears, I suspect, is the same thing that I fear:  the commercialization of education, and a focus on thin math and literacy skills rather than a rich whole-person curriculum.  As a journalist, I am heartbroken at the depths to which my profession has sunk, in a news industry dependent on advertising and quarterly returns.  Journalistic standards have been sacrificed almost completely, in favor of methods that appeal to peoples’ impulses, to attract the most suggestible eyeballs possible, and hold them through the commercial break. Just as curriculum is fundamental to quality education, journalism is fundamental to quality news.  Any system of school funding that uses advertising or marketing as a core source of support is dangerous.  The risk is commercialization is great, whether or not parents have choice. The risk is greatest if education is a monopoly, because commercialization, once established, will be exceedingly difficult to eliminate.

What are the lessons for San Francisco and other big city public school systems? 

First, any computer can do math or read text. Students, teachers, and schools should not be judged by the same criteria. Accountability should be two-fold: to parents and to broad curricula that teach people how to think and feel, reason and judge, accomplish great feats, experience soaring revelations, and begin to develop what, with time, will mature into great wisdom. 

To advance that, I want to see the actual school work students from every school are creating. Not a hand-selected set of “average” or “ideal” papers, tests, and art projects, but a broad set, chosen randomly.  As one former top education official recently told me, “Shine a light on students' actual work products – the papers they write, presentations they make, test answers they produce.  Those are the results of the teacher-student interaction, the combination of subject matter and the teacher's skill and energy in motivating and inspiring the students.”

Second, schools should not have to decline, in order to advance. Right now, the current system allows schools to slide until they reach the lowest five percent of performers. Then, millions of federal dollars flow into them, until they shape up. 

Big cities like San Francisco can do better than that. When demand for certain schools is high, those schools should be systematically expanded or replicated.  Sometimes that happens, but not often.  Instead, overflow students are sent off to their less desirable choices. When I shop for a Lexus, I don’t expect to be told that I need to accept a Kia because that’s what’s left.  Should parents choose schools the way they choose cars? Not always, but in this way, yes.

Third, we parents need to question our whole approach. Do we really want to give our kids every advantage? Is our ideal school one that has no rough edges, no harsh words, no bullies, no tears, no sorrow, no disappointment, no challenge? Do we want “unmanageable” kids siphoned off somewhere else, so our brilliant little jewels don’t have to face them until they graduate?  Or is school, in part, about learning how to excel in the face of real-world diversity and adversity?

I hope we are not handicapping our children with “advantages.”  The most advantaged people I know are among the most dysfunctional.  Money and opportunity often stunts their confidence, skills, and internal development. 

My wife grew strong in a tough school where she learned to contend with big, physically threatening bullies, who she learned to tame. On the other hand, I hated my first ten years of public school, and while I learned, I would have done better elsewhere. I don’t want my children to have to suffer bullies, or hate their school experience.  But I also don’t want to give them every advantage. 

We received our letter from the San Francisco school district a few weeks ago. Our twins entered Rosa Parks Elementary last week, in a Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program. Their teachers are wonderful.  The school, except for the pictures on the walls, might look a bit like a medium-security prison, but the people who work inside come early, work late, and are completely dedicated to the children they serve.   That doesn’t make the system functional, but it does counter some of the flaws.  We are pleased we don’t have to move away from San Francisco to find an elementary school we like.

After dedicating months to the process, I don’t know whether San Francisco’s approach to school choice is excellent, mediocre, or poor. But I hope it will continue to get better.

Giving parents choice, within a system that rewards performance against rich multifaceted curricula, provides gentle, continuous reminders to the education establishment on both the right and left: keep improving, gradually. Watch those innovators and entrepreneurs. Smile, if you like, when their grand visions fail – you knew they would. But steal their good ideas when they succeed.  on’t worry – unless you are completely inept, your institutional momentum will carry you forward. Seeded with the improvements that well-designed systems of choice gradually reveal, you will deliver continuously better results for the students who it is our responsibility to serve.

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Bill Shireman is the president and CEO of the Future 500, an organization that is dedicated to providing a bridge between the various political parties, stimulating political discourse that works towards solutions. His writings have appeared in many well-respected publications, including: USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Business Week, Technology Review, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Huffington Post, among others. He is considered a “master social and environmental entrepreneur”, making him an expert on school choice, among other topics.